Man versus Beast or The Fair at Neuilly

SIR WILLIAM ORPEN RA NEAC (1878-1931) Biography
MODERN BRITISH (20th Century ) Biography

Man versus Beast or The Fair at Neuilly (Ireland, c.1925)

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Oil on canvas
Signed Orpen Inscribed with the artists name and address 8 Bolton Gardens South on a label on the stretcher


89.00cm high
104.30cm wide
(35.04 inches high)
(41.06 inches wide)
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Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London 1981, page 69, 227, 283-4, 415, illustrated on page 414
P. Konody and Sidney Dark, Sir William Orpen, London 1932, pages 90, 152, 157, plate XXXII opp. page 149

Exhibition History

London, The Royal Academy, 1925 (with the title Man Versus Beast).

Description / Expertise

Throughout the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, Orpen had enjoyed unparalleled success and during the 1920's was earning up to £40,000 per annum as a society portraitist (an extraordinary sum by today's standards). By the mid-1920's he was even more famous than his sitters and his acclaim led to an offer of work in America for six months (which he turned down): a contract reputed to be worth £1,000,000.
Having spent 1917-18 at the Front, Orpen had suffered two serious bouts of illness. In 1925, as a break from England and the pressures of the demands on him as a society portrait painter, he travelled to Neuilly in France with the artist Augustus John. While there, they visited the town's annual fair, which is still held today. This extraordinary and moving painting was a result of this trip and remains unique in his oeuvre.

The figure on his back in the ring is Orpen himself, the bear perhaps representing all the forces that were oppressing him. In the foreground, the monkey - a symbol of mischief or evil - is dominant, his hand resting on the back of Augustus John shown kissing a girl in the audience.

Bruce Arnold writes of this painting, “As a relief from portrait painting the picture seems to have been a curiously sombre experience for the artist... Orpen has created out of this strange subject a metaphor of his feelings of malaise and distress at the time. He was appalled by the destructiveness and indignity with which the mass of men conduct themselves, and with the vulgarity and indifference of the generation that followed the Great War. Orpen recognised this character in himself and identified with such a mood. In this picture only the bear behaves with uncomprehending dignity in the presence of its squalid masters.”(1)

Orpen's feelings of the painting were such that he painted two versions, one of which was bought by Lady Rocksavage, the Marquess of Cholmondeley, which is still in the family private collection.(2)

1. Bruce Arnold, Orpen, Mirror to an Age, London 1981, page 415.
2. It was on the suggestion of Lady Rocksavage, Orpen’s close friend and influential patron, that he execute a subject painting. It was on this persuasive advice that he and John went to Neuilly.